Forming Italian Compound Nouns

A highway stretches into a mountain landscape.

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Where does the word "autostrada," which means "highway," come from?

It comes from two words: auto (car) and strada (street), giving it a literal meaning of "a street for cars." This is just one example of a compound noun in Italian, a word that is combined from two other words.

In Italian linguistics, this is called a "composto," compound, or a "parola composta," compound word.

Other examples include:

  • fermare + carte = fermacarte: paperweight
  • pasta + asciutta = pastasciutta: dried pasta
  • cassa + panca = cassapanca: dresser

Creating compound nouns is one of the primary ways, after adding suffixes, to increase the amount of vocabulary in the language. The formation of new words is particularly useful to the development of terminologie tecnico-scientifiche (scientific and technical terminology).

Consider, for example, the numerous compound nouns with Greek elements in the language of medicine:

  • elettrocardiogramma: electrocardiogram
  • cancerogeno: carcinogenic

What Makes up a Compound Noun

A compound need not be two (or more) forme libere, such as "asciuga(re)" and "mano" in "asciugamano."

They can also be two (or more) forme non libere, such as antropo- (from the Greek ánthrōpos, "man") and -fago (from the Greek phaghêin "to eat") in antropofago "he who eats human flesh."

The Greek elements antropo- and -fago, unlike asciuga(re) and mano, do not exist as stand-alone words but are found only in compound nouns.

Aside from this difference, another should be noted: in compound nouns, such as "asciugamano" there is the sequence: verb (asciugare) + noun (mano). Words such as antropofago have an inverse sequence: noun (antropo: "man") + verb (-fago: "to eat").

In any event, there is a fundamental property common to these two compounds. The implied, underlying phrase, of both has a verbal predicate:

  • (qualcosa) asciuga (la) mano = asciugamano: (something) dries (the) hand = hand towel
  • (qualcosa) mangia (l') uomo = antropofago: (something) eats (the) man = cannibal

In other cases, however, the implied phrase of the compound has a nominal predicate. In other words, it is a sentence containing the verb essere:

  • (il) filo (è) spinato = filo spinato: (the) wire (is) barbed = barbed wire
  • (la) cassa (è) forte = cassaforte: (the) box (is) strong = strongbox, safe

Examples of Italian Compound Words

Noun + Noun / Nome + Nome

  • capo + stazione = capostazione: stationmaster
  • capo + giro = capogiro: dizziness
  • cassa + panca = cassapanca: dresser
  • madre + perla = madreperla: mother-of-pearl

Noun + Adjective / Nome + Aggettivo

  • cassa + forte = cassaforte: strongbox, safe

Adjective + Noun / Aggettivo + Nome

  • franco + bollo = francobollo: stamp
  • mezza + luna = mezzaluna: half-moon

Adjective + Adjective / Aggettivo + Aggettivo

  • piano + forte = pianoforte: piano
  • sordo + muto = sordomuto: deaf-mute

Verb + Verb / Verbo + Verbo

  • dormi + veglia = dormiveglia: stupor, lethargy
  • sali + scendi = saliscendi: latch

Verb + Noun / Verbo + Nome

  • apri + scatole = apriscatole: can opener
  • lava + piatti = lavapiatti: dishwasher
  • spazza + neve = spazzaneve: snowplow

Verb + Adverb / Verbo + Avverbio

  • posa + piano = posapiano: slowpoke
  • butta + fuori = buttafuori: bouncer

Adverb + Verb / Avverbo + Verbio

  • bene + stare = benestare: approval, blessing, consent
  • male + essere = malessere: unease, discomfort

Adverb + Adjective / Avverbo + Aggettivo

  • sempre + verde = sempreverde: evergreen

Preposition or Adverb + Noun / Preposizione o Avverbio + Nome

  • sotto + passaggio = sottopassaggio: underpass
  • anti + pasto = antipasto: appetizer
  • sopra + nome = soprannome: nickname
  • dopo + scuola = doposcuola: after-school

Compound Nouns With 'Capo'

Among the compounds formed using the term capo (head), in the figurative sense, a distinction must be made between:

those in which the term capo indicates "one who commands," the manager:

  • capo + scuola = caposcuola: dean
  • capo + stazione = capostazione: stationmaster
  • capo + classe = capoclasse: class president

and those in which the element capo indicates either "excellence" or "beginning of something:"

  • capo + lavoro = capolavoro: masterpiece
  • capo + verso = capo verso: paragraph, indent

There are also other types of compounds, formed in more diverse ways:

  • capodanno = capo dell'anno (noun + preposition + noun): New Year, end of the year
  • pomodoro = pomo d'oro (noun + preposition + noun): tomato
  • buono-sconto = buono per ottenere uno sconto: discount ticket
  • fantascienza = scienza del fantastico: science fiction
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Your Citation
Filippo, Michael San. "Forming Italian Compound Nouns." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Filippo, Michael San. (2020, August 26). Forming Italian Compound Nouns. Retrieved from Filippo, Michael San. "Forming Italian Compound Nouns." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).